Neutral Zone 1998

20th-22nd March 1998

reported by Kathryn A

Disclaimer for Blake's 7 fen: you may notice that this report is somewhat oriented towards one guest in particular. Considering that he was the main reason I went to Neutral Zone, and that I am now even more inclined towards him than I was before going to this con, this should come as no surprise. No, it isn't Gareth Thomas. (But it was for Judith.) JMDG-L folk need no disclaimer.

Thursday 19th March

I arrived at Heathrow at 5:30am GMT, and by 6:30 I was on the Underground, looking at the stations going past and feeling like I was on a Monopoly board. My trip was relatively simple: I only had to get to Kings Cross - and deal with about three sets of stairs with three bags. Fortunately, I encountered the wonderful English courtesy: three separate people helped me with my bags at each set of stairs! After being persuaded to buy a buffet food voucher by the man who stamped my BritRail pass, and figuring out where to go and what train to get on, I realized I had a while to wait, and, deciding not to put my cases in a locker, I sat on a seat on platform 8 reading my book. Then, the queue for the train-boarding, then the train, grabbing a seat that wasn't reserved, and double-checking that it was indeed going to Newcastle. Then, we pulled out of the brick-and-iron arches of Kings Cross station, past the rows and clusters of identical houses, then the green, green countryside - and more houses! One of the differences between England and Australia: in Victoria (Australia), once you're out of the city, it's country for miles and miles and miles. In England, all that seems to be in smaller clumps. Another thing was the quality of the light. Despite the sky being cloudless blue, it felt as if someone had turned down the intensity of the sun by about 10%. Some advice: never get a buffet food voucher, and don't drink Lucosade in the mistaken impression that it's like Gatorade. As everyone knows, train food is the epitome of medicrity.

I arrived in Newcastle, and caught a taxi to the Forte Posthouse hotel. Christine and I were booked in (my usual paranoia was thus assuaged) but the rooms were not free yet. Many people were arriving, so we, strangers but fans, went upstairs to the bar lounge, and nattered about Stargate, X-Files and other fannish topics, until the rooms were available. So I dashed down to reception, checked in, turned around, and there was Annie and Linda. Hugs all round. I retrieved my bags from the cloakroom, went upstairs to my new room, and did what I had been longing for for the last 12 hours - a shower and a change of clothes! Then I went down, and Annie & Linda were still waiting to check in, but that moment their room was ready, so they checked in, and I helped them carry their bags up.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was a mixture of chatting to Annie & Linda in 303, dashing up to 512, and dashing down to reception to see if Christine or Judith or Pat had arrived yet. And eating dinner, and talking to Christine when she did arrive. On one of those ask-at-reception failures, when I was waiting for a lift, who should come out of the arriving lift but Tucker Smallwood! So, he had arrived already.

Friday 20th March

I had breakfast with Annie and Linda, checked in to the convention - they spelled my surname wrong of course, so after an attempt to change the 'o' to an 'e' I gave up and blacked out my surname entirely, after finding that most people only had their first names on their badges anyway. The program was three streams of videos, plus guest Q&A sessions and more videos. No discussion panels or anything. And for a convention with two S:AAB and one B7 guest, there was hardly any S:AAB or B7 videos, which seemed rather odd to me. But since I only ended up watching about two videos over the entire convention, I suppose I can't complain - much.

I returned downstairs from my room after breakfast, wandered into the downstairs bar area opposite the main hall, spotted Linda and Annie - and did a double-take. The fellow in a pullover and jeans with grey curly hair talking to them, was JAMES MORRISON! I hovvered for a moment, he took one step away, and I said "Hello," and we shook hands, and I said I'd travelled 10,000 kilometres to see him. He said, "You're from Australia also?" and we talked a little of accents. I then stumbled to a halt saying something about being tongue-tied, and he said he was a little nervous himself (!) and I said that we were all friendly. Then two other fen came up and made comments about S:AAB, and I left him to them. Or them to him. Whatever.

I caught up with Annie and Linda, and they told of how he had talked of spiders. When the S:AAB crew had been in Brisbane for the pilot, in a hotel, he found a big hairy spider in his room, and beat it to death with a golf club. And then been told later that it was harmless. I expect it was a Huntsman spider, which is, indeed, big and hairy, in a velvety, dove-grey way.

We then went on a shopping expedition out into the grey, dry and crisp day, and on the way back, I made a remark wondering if James had managed to extricate himself from the fans yet, since the pattern seemed to be that he would get about a foot further into the room and be accosted by the next bunch. When we got to the next crossing, who should we see coming in the opposite direction, but James Morrison, in black overcoat and dark glasses, accompanied by a fellow in a brown jacket. James nodded at us, made a remark about going for a walk, and went on. Obviously, he did manage to extricate himself...

After lunch and a Highlander episode, I bumped into Annie & Linda again, discovered that the dealers room was open, looked for Judith and almost didn't recognise her with her new hairstyle. Happy greetings! After buying a few things, going upstairs to grab some Refractions, changing into my new Redemption T-shirt, putting my things-to-be-autographed in a bag, I went back down again and found that Judith was gone. Pat said that I had three guesses as to where Judith was, and then answered herself, "Gareth, Gareth and Gareth."

Gareth Thomas and Judith were indeed to be found, as expected, by the bar, with a bunch of people, having an interesting conversation which ranged from former things that Gareth had been in, to Fermet's Last Theorem. I eventually excused myself because my feet were tired of standing, and moved into the main hall to find a seat for the opening ceremony.

Photo: Val Westal, Gareth Thomas, Judith Proctor Val appears to be covering Gareth's beer, and the booklet that Judith is holding is her listing of all Gareth's appearances, which she was double-checking with him.

This began with a S:AAB video clip "Holding On For a Hero", all bouncy and energetic, very good. Then the Guests of Honour were introduced one at a time, starting with the fannish/writing ones, then the actors, and the applause increased with each one. I'm not sure, however, whether James Morrison or Steven Furst got the most tumultuous reception. The actual guests were Jim Swallow, Keith Topping, Joe Nazzaro, Sheelagh Wells, Gareth Thomas (B7), Tucker Smallwood (Space: Above and Beyond), James Morrison (S:AAB also) and Steven Furst (B5).

Then the guest Q&A, with all of them sitting in a row and the microphone being passed back and forth. The questions were not coming thick nor fast; I certainly couldn't think of any to ask. The best questions were the two which were asked as general questions of all the guests, and I've forgotten the first one, but the last one was basically, "How did you get to be where you are today? How did you start off?" Sheelagh summed it up pretty well - doing what you dreamed of, taking the risk because it was what you wanted to do, because there's nothing worse than looking back and saying "I wish I'd tried."

James said, very seriously (prefacing it with "The temptation to be flippant about this is almost irresistable.") that he wanted to make a difference, to influence how people think, and if he can ride on the coat-tails of those greater (at that) than he, so much the better. He then succumbed to temptation and made the flippant remark that he also did it because, like with golf, he gets intermittent results. He also said earlier in the Q&A, jokingly, that he only ever gets hired for things that Morgan & Wong are involved in.

Gareth was more relaxed and talkative than anyone else up there, which is no real surprise. Gareth grabbed the microphone just before the committee person was going to declare the session closed, and said that the only reason they were all there was because of us, that we kept them alive, and asked us to give ourselves a hand. (as in clapping). Then the committee person declared it closed, and said, that though the guests had come from places ranging from 5 minutes away (Keith Topping) to across the Atlantic (eg Tucker, James and Steven), that some of the attendees had come all the way from Australia, and asked the Australians to identify themselves, so the half-dozen of us stuck up our hands, and they gave us a round of applause. Then Gareth grabbed the mike and said "Is that the Commonwealth of Australia, or the Republic of Australia?" and Christine (and I think it was Pat & Sandy) yelled out "Republic!" and I countered, "We haven't decided yet!"

Then the throng left the room slowly, and by the time I got out, I spotted Gareth making his way to the bar, and James was heading towards the lifts. Then I picked up my key, and there was a huge crowd of people by the lifts, and the first lift that came departed full, which left about five of us waiting for the next lift, including James and a fellow carrying a chair. So when the lift came, the chair fellow got in first and urged James to sit in the chair, but James demurred, saying he had been sitting all day, and he offered it to me, so I sat in it cheerfully, until the first floor, when the chair man took off with the chair.

And someone remarked, "I wonder what he is doing with that chair?"

James said, "He's stealing it as a souvenir. Some people take towels, other people take chairs."

And I said, "Judging by the lack of them, I think people are taking spoons as souvenirs." (because at breakfast, there had been only one teaspoon on the whole table.)

James said, with a twinkle in his eye, "I do."

Then I had to get out because it was my floor. (sigh).

Later, I ate some of the con food for dinner (baked spud) and sat with Judith and we discussed fancy dress ideas, considering the costume resources we had at our disposal. Judith eventually came up with this:

"As those who listened to the Sevenfold Crown will know, a teleport malfunction resulted in Avon being cloned. However, fear not, the BBC have now commissioned a new scriptwriter, a man who has watched the entire series, a man who knows the characters inside out, a man who doesn't think he's writing a Doctor Who script with Star Trek technology. No, it's not Barry Letts - it's his seven-year-old son! May we proudly introduce Kerr Avon in 'The Origami Tiara'!"
(Kathryn in Avon costume enters, surveys crowd with a snooty look, lifts up bracelet)
"Teleport now!"
(taps bracelet in puzzlement. Judith and Julia enter from opposite sides of the stage, both wearing different Avon costumes. Kathryn takes a few seconds to notice, does a double-take)
"Oh no, not again!"

Then we went up to the second floor to do a bit of filking, and then I had to leave to join my alloted time-slot for the autograph queue. I got Gareth to sign my copy of "Morgan" which I had bought from Judith ealier, her Morgan's Boy/Blake's 7 crossover.

It looked as if I might have been the first person to come through with an Enarraré 10 for people to sign, because both Tucker and James examined it and asked me questions about it, so I went into the usual spiel about it being issue 10 of a fanzine and being a S:AAB special. Tucker asked if it was British and I told him it was Australian, and he asked me where I was from, and he said that he'd been to Australia recently for an episode of Flipper, but the little he'd seen of the country would be like going to Las Vegas and judging America by that.

I had a nice chat to Sheelagh and Joe because I was wearing my Redemption T-shirt (they are GoHs at Redemption) and when I revealed that I was the artist, they were very pleased to meet me. I didn't know what to say to Steven Furst, so I didn't say anything.

James, too, had not seen an Enarraré 10 before, so I explained about it. When he saw the cover (I'd had it open at the circle poem so that was what he saw first) he was impressed and asked my if I'd done it, and I said no, Annie did it, and he wondered where she'd gotten the photo of McQueen, because it was different from the usual publicity photo of him holding his helmet, and I thought that it was just lighter, but he pointed out that in the usual photo, he was looking down, but on the Enarraré 10 cover, he was looking up, so I said that I would ask Annie and tell him.

Then I went up to 303 and chatted to Annie and Linda, then went up to my room. I sat in bed and read Morgan until 12:30am (!) Must have been gripping, eh? It was good; a character study in both directions, Avon and Morgan. And I loved the recipricocity of each other's salvation.

Saturday 21st March

Costume of the day: Barbarian with Staff. This was the first time I'd taken my new collapsable staff to a con. It was made for me in three sections which screw together, by my brother-in-law, from maple, cut to make an octagon shape (rather than the traditional circular staff). This was done to make a staff worthy of the dragon-claw-and-optic-crystal-ball staff-top which I'd bought at MediaWest last year. The finishing touch was an attachment of wild rabbit fur at the top, forming a stylistic bridge between the ornate claw and the elegant simplicity of the staff. The talents of three artisans went into it, and I am very pleased with it. The only problem is, when sitting down for a session, one either has to hold it up, which is awkward, or lie it on the floor, which is also awkward.

I bumped into Judith and Val on their way down to breakfast, so I came down and chatted with them while they ate. We kept chatting in the dealers room, then I went to Tucker Smallwood's talk and discovered to my distress that my camera batteries were flat and I couldn't take any photos! But it was an excellent Q&A, ranging from Goodbye Charlie (Millennium), Home (X-Files), Ross (S:AAB), Vietnam, the Blues, being given the wrong sword on the opening night of Julius Ceasar, the really positive reaction of Armed Forces personel to S:AAB, the universitality of war, why he celebrates two birthdays (one was his birth, Feb 22nd, the other was a recovery from death, re-birth, in the Vietnam war). How he felt that Ross was very much like him, like he would be in that position, which made it a very easy and fulfilling role to play, because he knew where he was centred, and he could concentrate on the nuances. And he played "I'll be home for Christmas" on the guitar for us, and talked about the Blues CD he performed on.

Had a nice natter with Annie, Linda, Fiona and Helen in a corner of the bar area, then went with Val to the charity auction part 1, and wished I hadn't, because it went on and on full of Trek stuff, and it was impossible to leave.

The next event of note was James Morrison's Q&A session, after lunch. I wish I had had a tape. He found McQueen his most challenging role, learned a lot, stretched his craft, and found a bit of character bleed. The S:AAB cast felt unapreciated, hated to see S:AAB cancelled. His nickname on the set was "The Cheerless Cherub". He would do McQueen again in a shot, but he doesn't expect it to happen. If he could work with anyone, he would like to work with Anthony Hopkins. In an ideal world, he prefers theatre, because of the immediate interaction with the audience, but good TV is better than horrible theatre. He auctioned off his copy of the script of the Millenium episode he was in, for £260, for the convention charity (hearing dogs for the deaf).

He doesn't believe in Method acting, it's "let's pretend", that's all. His wife's advice on auditioning for parts requiring intensity: "Do nothing." That way he would be just intense enough. He likes the blues, (as does Tucker Smallwood) but McQueen was shown as liking Beethoven because it would be rather silly having arguments about whether Ross or McQueen should be allowed to like the Blues. James, however, was allowed to pick McQueen's first names (Tyrus Cassius).

"I've read some of the fan fiction - it was very... imaginative."
(audience reaction)
"No, I didn't mean that stuff! I read one, Ross and McQueen - it was bad! It's called 'slash' isn't it?"

He didn't seem shocked about slash, which isn't surprising really, considering the kind of subjects he is willing to tackle in his writing, "Nude Descending" for example, and apparently his next project is to write a play about rape and incest, for charity relating to support victims of same. He isn't interested in writing fanfic himself. If there had been a second season, he would liked to have written a how-McQueen-copes script, but that's all. He was never into SF, but is more interested now. Joel had given him a copy of Lord Foul's Bane, saying "You should play this part!" Mentioned Ira Levin as having written an SF story he'd been very impressed with, but I thought Ira Levin would never have written SF, and I can't remember the title he mentioned. (Theresa has now informed me that it was "Death Trap")

Someone asked him if he could still juggle (having been a clown) and he said yes. So the person challenged him to prove it, and tossed him the balls to do so! And he did! Every time he stood up in the session, the camera flashes went crazy, particularly when he first came on (he said then that he would sit down when he was completely blind).

The rest of the afternoon was spent chatting with various people, and doing a bit of filking with Judith, and at some point I looked at Val's entries in the art show; some Avons and a Morgan and the cover of the Morgan zine. I had dinner in the restaurant, and chatted with two con-going lasses at the next table.

Around eight o'clock, we went to the main hall, where they were setting up for the fancy dress. We arranged with the M.C. about our entry, and went through it by ourselves a couple of times. We sat around and chatted while waiting for them to organise themselves, and when they had, it was decreed that Judith, Julia and I were to go first. Then we were all lined up in the hallway, a cold concrete hallway by the kitchens, which went in both directions, up and down from the door we were to go in. The idea was to line up on the "down" side, come out and do our bit, come back in and line up on the "up" side, wait, and then come out in order for a quick walk-on, go out again, and await the judges' decision.

But the Guest judges were late because the autograph session was running late, so we were told to go off and reassemble at five to ten (the fancy dress was originally going to start at 9:30). So we escaped, and then we came back and waited in the hall. James Morrison was the first to arrive, so he was waiting too, in his favourite pullover and jeans. He walked up and down the other end of the hallway, taking an occassional swig from the bottle he was carrying. Then Gareth Thomas arrived, and he, rather than wait, went out to the bar. Then finally Tucker Smallwood arrived, and the ball started rolling.

We had some malfunctioning microphone problems, mine was hardly working, and at one point the fellow doing the Ode To Spot had to do a little dance of microphone exchange to get one that worked.

The winners were:

  • #1) Ode To Spot (Data uniform, makeup, toy cat, and word-perfect rendition of Data's Ode To Spot.)
  • #2) The House of Duress, which were a Londo, a Minbari, a Ladira, who did a little dance number to The Rivers of Babylon.
  • #3) Space, A Bear, and Beyond: one of the tech crew in S:AAB dress, with a teddy bear in full S:AAB dress.
  • First Commendation: 007 of Borg. (I shall say no more)
  • Second Commendation: The Alternative Angry Angel - white flight-suit, black chunky boots, angel wings, gold tinsel halo, and a baseball bat.

The other entries were:

  • Judith, Julia and me in The Origami Tiara. Only the Blake's 7 fans seemed to get the joke.
  • a lovely Centauri lady in purple
  • Dixon Hill and ladies
  • Xena
  • a swashbuckler
  • Delenna and the Shadows (black leather and water pistol)
  • a Man In Black
and one more that I can't remember.

There was a "floor show" (ostensibly to give the judges time to deliberate) "The Real Dabbo Girls" who did a dance to "My Guy" who turned out to be a two-timing Captain Kirk. I didn't catch all of it, since we were peering though the door in order to see. After all the announcements including the announcements of the winners and bringing us all back out, the comperes did a silly semi-striptease, but someone came out of the audience and did a little more first, rather to the comperes' surprise. Then people stood around taking photos of the fancy dress entries, and presumably the disco started after that, but I went to bed.

Sunday 22nd March

Due to some remnants of jetlag, I was the third person at the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The second person was Caroline, whom I'd met on Thursday. She said, "Did you hear what happened?"

I replied, assuming that whatever it was, it had happened overnight, "No, I was asleep."

She said that someone had set off the sprinklers in the second upstairs bar, and all the video rooms and the main hall were shut down because of the water. The art room was okay, video 3 was okay, but since you had to get to them past the other two, everything was off, at that point. It was so bad that the roof tiles in video 1 came down! Apparently, I learned later, there had been a (mundane) stag party on in the second bar, and the idiots had thrown darts at the sprinkler system, and it burst. Fortunately, because of the con, and the con security, the whole thing was detected much sooner than it might have been otherwise. So the hotel was very happy with the con people. They were pretty well organised, because by the time it was about 10, things were back on track, all the strands were running, they'd just moved the video 1 program into another room.

We definitely were the first in for breakfast - when I went up for my cereal, there was no hot food out, but it was by the time I wanted it, except for my toast, which I didn't get until after I'd eaten my egg. Then, the great discovery... Someone at the table next to me, when asked the standard question by the waitress, "Tea or coffee?", asked, "Do you have hot chocolate?" When the waitress answered "yes", about three other voices chorused (including me) "Hot chocolate?" "You mean we could have had hot chocolate all this time?" So naturally I ordered some hot chocolate.

When I had finished eating, I got up to leave, and started out, when, wonder of wonders, I saw James Morrison walking to a table. I had been kicking myself last night because I didn't try to talk to him to give him the answer to his question about the Enarraré 10 cover, so I siezed the opportunity which was before me. I told him, as Annie had told me, that the photo came from a magazine article (Annie had sacrificed the magazine for it) He said, "So it doesn't really exist." Then I passed on Annie's offer of a copy of the zine, and he said he'd be delighted, and I said we'd give it to him when we could catch him later, and he said he'd like to tell Annie himself how good he thought it was, and I said "You do that! I think it's wonderful." Then I excused myself and spent the next half-an-hour on cloud nine.

Of course I went off immediately and told Annie & Linda the news, and nattered with them until they went down to breakfast, wherapon I went down to the ground floor and nattered to Judith where she was on door duty. Judith was trying to think of good questions to ask Joe, Sheelagh and Gareth. Then we went into the dealers room for a bit, and I spent more money than I probably should have.

Then it was Gareth, Sheelagh and Joe, a fun rambling thing talking about acting, the Together Again tapes, makeup, Neverwhere, Morgan's Boy, cult TV...

Then we escaped from the charity auction part 2 before it started, spent a little time in the dealers room, and then found out that James was signing autographs in the bar area, so I grabbed Annie and Linda and we joined the queue, and they gave him the Enarraré and got a couple more things signed, and talked a little of jetlag. (Seems both they and James were still suffering from 2am wakings.)

We went upstairs for a cuppa, then I dashed downstairs for the James Morrison & Tucker Smallwood session, but the auction was still going, running late, and James and Tucker were still signing things, and a couple of people were getting their pictures taken with the guests, so I timidly went up and got mine taken. Looking at the result, I'm much happier than he. And how many camera flashes did he get over the weekend?

Then the auction finally did finish, and James and Tucker had their Q&A session. Unfortunately, there was no microphone for the questions, so one had to deduce the questions from the answers. Some things were repeated from yesterday, and many I don't remember. One good one was, "What is the best thing, the best moments about what you do?" Tucker said, the moments when an understanding of the character, an understanding of himself, that he didn't have before, crystalizes. James said, "You know, how it is, when a mother lifts a car to save her child, that extraordinary strength that sometimes happens - that's poetry. And those moments of poetry - when you reach beyond your potential, completely selfless..." and Tucker added, "When you're in the groove..". Well, you had to be there.

A lot more was said, but nothing so profound. Silly fun things were said too. Someone asked about blue-screen work, and Tucker said that it didn't really worry him because the important thing was the interaction with the other actors, and James said that when you're looking at blue-screen where, say, it is supposed to be a ship leaving the Saratoga, then you just look and think about what you are supposed to be doing - if you are to be sad that the ship is leaving, then you look sad, if you're supposed to be happy they're leaving, you look happy. Then Tucker pointed out that things can get complicated when you have a whole roomful of people, all supposed to be looking at the same imaginary thing, they don't always get it in unison. (Visions of B7 Scorpio bloopers went though my head at this point, times when they didn't all swerve in the same direction.)

Then I dashed upstairs to watch a Highlander video, and then basically wandered around in and out of the dealers room and chatted with people (and wrote in my journal) until the closing ceremony.

My camera was busy, but it was mostly the back of people's heads. What a waste of film, neh?

There was the raffle drawing, but none of the prizes were all that interesting, and the first two winning ticket-holders weren't even there! The Hearing Dog charity had raised enough for a dog, so that was good. A revelation - no wonder there was so much Trek in a con with no Trek guests - it was organized by a Trek club. They gave out certificates for the winners of various competitions, including the fancy dress. Val won second prize in the art show for her "Morgan" cover. Maike (she's a German fan, I think) won first prize for her painting of McQueen, and the certificate was handed to her by James, of course. There was much thanks and we-couldn't-have-done-it-without-X, and much applause. Diana was given gifts and flowers.

And then it was officially over, though the "chill-down" party would go on until late. But cons aren't really over until you go home, are they? Except that mostly what happened after that was fascinating conversations with fellow fen, of which one can either not remember, or not repeat, their contents. I mean, you don't really want to know the discussion between Val and I as to what actor we would rather have dinner with, or gossip from Fiona about local fen, or, indeed, what kind of pizza we ate for tea.

Monday 23rd March

It is a demonstration of the perversity of life, that while I was wishing and hoping and dreaming of a repeat of yesterday's breakfast encounter with James Morrison, what did happen was that instead, I saw Steven Furst. So I smiled and waved, but again said nothing. I'm not into B5 any more.

However, I did catch a glimpse of James as I was sitting on the stairs after I checked out, as he walked in from outside in his overcoat, carrying a take-away cup of coffee, and dissappeared into the lift. My last glimpse, so I thought. I expressed a wish to Val and Judith as we stood there with our cases, waiting for the taxi to take us to the station, that I could at least say goodbye and wish him well, and muttering that it would never happen. So when he came out of the lift with a bag, Val dared me to go over and do just that. So I did. It is a further irony of life that he thought I was someone else, someone who'd given him a painting. (I assumed at the time that it was Maike, the lass who'd done the McQueen painting, but I discovered after I got back that it wasn't. Now I don't know who it was!) So I explained that I wasn't, and wished him well anyway. So that was my last glimpse of James Morrison in the flesh.

But the convention was almost not really over, because we carried it with us, since there was a bunch of us catching the train from Newcastle, and we all sat together in the train and talked about everything from Xena, to story arcs, to B5, to letting characters die, to sanitized plots, to realism, to S:AAB, to fannish olympics ideas, to the Media and fandom, to self-identification of groups, to abortion, to green activists, to convention tech crews, to conventions-I-have-known, and so on and so forth. But eventually the party broke up, and people went their separate ways.

Next up, Deliverance.

(That's not the end of it, though. The week after I got back from England, I was crazy enough to write a filk about the con.)